Understanding the evolution of bona fide mixed-mode groups: An example of Meetup groups
First Monday

Understanding the evolution of bona fide mixed-mode groups: An example of Meetup groups by Chih-Hui Lai



Abstract
This study examines the evolution of an emerging form of social organization: mixed–mode groups. These are Internet–established but operate as in–person voluntary associations. Through longitudinal observations and interviews with 34 group organizers of Meetup.com, a good example of mixed–mode groups, findings of this study revealed the iterative and simultaneous variation–selection–retention (V–S–R) mechanisms enacted by groups as they evolved. Building on permeable boundaries and multiple memberships, these bona fide groups also exhibited different forms of interaction with other groups as well as the local community.

Contents

Introduction
A review of bona fide group and evolutionary/ecological perspectives
Methods
Findings
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

An enduring question in contemporary society is whether, and how, voluntary associations are enabled or constrained alongside the prevalent use of new media technology in society (Putnam, 1993). Unlike in past eras, contemporary society is equipped with various information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially the Internet, which make it relatively easy for people to build and maintain relationships and engage in social activity in different modalities (Katz and Rice, 2002; Wellman and Gulia, 1999; Wellman, et al., 2001). Yet the importance of face–to–face interaction in associational activities has not been reduced. Use of ICTs is shown to be positively related to the likelihood of belonging to a local voluntary group such as a neighborhood association, sports league, youth group, church, or social club (Hampton, et al., 2009).

In the meantime, despite the prevalence of Internet use for different purposes by voluntary associations, most research thus far has focused on online groups, which are characterized by dominant online activities with sporadic face–to–face group interaction (e.g., Baym, 2002; Brandon and Hollingshead, 2007). Little is known as to how traditional face–to–face voluntary associations can be facilitated or enabled through these uses of technology. To better understand the interplay between technology use and contemporary forms of voluntary groups, it becomes salient to investigate how voluntary groups, which are afforded with various technological opportunities, evolve over time, which is the focus of this study.

This study aims to shed light on the evolution of Internet–established yet operating as in–person voluntary associations, which are also called electronic–to–face (e2f) groups (Weinberg and Williams, 2006). These groups are created and organized online to interact physically in geographically defined ways. Considering their broad scope of task durations (e.g., short–term political campaign groups, long–term social groups), group topics (e.g., profit–based, networking, social, hobbies, service), mixed uses of media modalities (e.g., the Internet, face–to–face), and varying levels of structures (e.g., formally vs. informally structured, small groups and large organizations), these groups are thought to be more appropriately labeled as “mixed–mode groups.” The term of mixed–mode groups has its conceptual root in the notion of mixed–mode relationships (MMR), which refers to the occurrence of mode–switching of interpersonal interaction and relationships from online to off–line (Walther and Parks, 2002). A group created on Meetup.com that engages in outdoor adventure activities in the Chicago area provides an example of mixed–mode groups. Other Web sites enabling mixed–mode groups include Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, and BigTent.

To understand the evolution of mixed–mode groups, this study draws on two theoretical frameworks: the bona fide group perspective and the ecological and evolutionary approach. The characteristics of mixed–mode groups are reflective of the fluid and permeable boundaries as outlined in the bona fide group perspective (Putnam and Stohl, 1990; 1996). Mixed–mode groups represent a type of bona fide groups enabled through technology use and relying on fluid organizing structure, membership, internal, and external interaction. The ecological and evolutionary approach can further illuminate how groups engage in the adaptive and evolutionary process that shapes and is shaped by the environment (Campbell, 1965; Hannan and Freeman, 1977). In the following sections, I first provide a review of the bona fide group perspective and the ecological and evolutionary approach in organizational contexts. This review leads to the development of two research questions. I then describe the methods and procedures for analyzing the observational data and interviews with 34 group organizers of Meetup.com. Finally, I discuss the findings as way to advance theories applied to mixed–mode groups.

 

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A review of bona fide group and evolutionary/ecological perspectives

A bona fide group perspective views groups as social systems interacting with their environments in a stable yet fluid way, and pays attention to the influence of immediate contexts on inner workings of the group (Putnam and Stohl, 1990; 1996). Specifically, groups are constantly subject to the influence from the environment through permeable boundaries represented in fluctuating memberships and members’ multiple affiliations with other groups. The bona fide group perspective has been applied to different settings, such as surgical teams (Lammers and Krikorian, 1997), ad hoc expedition groups (Houston, 2003), civic action groups (Parrish–Sprowl, 2003), volunteer and community groups (Howell, et al., 2003; Kramer, 2002; 2005), collaborations (Keyton and Stallworth, 2003), religious groups (Silva and Sias, 2010), and online groups (Alexander, et al., 2003; Kirkorian and Kiyomiya, 2003). These studies arrive at similar conclusions about the usefulness of permeable group boundaries and effective intragroup and intergroup communication that contribute to the achievement of group goals. Nonetheless, as useful as this perspective is in examining the interaction between groups and the environment, there is little mention of how and why groups sustain themselves in the processes of being influenced by and influencing the environment. In this regard, the ecological and evolutionary perspective helps expand these inquiries.

The ecological and evolutionary perspective, mostly applied in organizational settings, examines the process of how communities and the populations of organizations that constitute them struggle to acquire resources in order to survive. In other words, the subject of interest is the process of how organizations pursue the goal of fitness by means of interacting with other members in their communities and populations as well as by interacting with their environments (Campbell, 1965; Hannan and Freeman, 1977; Monge, et al., 2008; Monge and Poole, 2008; Monge, et al., 2011). Specifically, organizational change is realized through the mechanisms of variation, selection, and retention (V–S–R) (Campbell, 1965). Generally, organizations face different opportunities and challenges after being established, which is the source of variation. Some variations will be selected and retained as part of the organizational practices for survival.

The evolutionary process of technology–mediated groups

The V–S–R framework can be used to understand the evolutionary process of online groups. Research has shown that a key problem facing online groups is a high drop–off rate due to easy entry and penalty–free exit (Sander, 2005). Groups may thus adapt themselves through different strategies; mixed–mode interaction stands out as a useful one. For example, off–line interaction is helpful for members to develop social relationships as a basis for engaging in group activities (Alon, et al., 2004; Butler, et al., 2008; Koh, et al., 2007; Rothaermel and Sugiyama, 2001) as well as motivation for returning to the group (Sander, 2005). Similarly, face–to–face meetings were found to be positively related to attending members’ ongoing contributions to the online community and preferred interaction with other members who also attended the meetings (Sessions, 2010). Moreover, groups may need to keep members motivated while dealing with competition from outside. In a study of online newsgroups by Kirkorian and Kiyomiya (2003), they suggest that the survival of online newsgroups rests on the continued message participation from members as well as control over the infiltration of external threats such as spam. Wang, et al. (2006) also found that those online groups that shared much content with other groups (cross–posting groups) and that had a large proportion of their members in other groups (membership overlap rate), there was a high likelihood that fewer existing group members would return to the group in the following session.

As these above studies focus on groups whose interaction occurs online, little is known as to whether and how groups engage in the adaptive process of incorporating mixed–mode social and physical contexts that may influence the fate of the group over time, which is salient under both the bona fide group and ecological and evolutionary perspectives. Moreover, it is not clear how technological affordances are incorporated into the evolutionary process of the group. While there are various definitions for this concept, the one that is most useful for this study conceptualizes technological affordances as the capabilities of technologies to facilitate the fulfillment of social practices in a particular context (see a review of technological affordances in Hsieh, 2012). In mixed–mode groups, technological affordances can be linked to the use of technology for communication and organization of the group. In light of this, a research question asks:

RQ1: How are the processes of V–S–R reflected in the formation and continuity of mixed–mode groups; particularly, what is the role of technology in this evolutionary process?

Group interaction with the environment

Behaviors of human groups will invariably affect the environment; for example, certain stores, restaurants, and bowling alleys are patronized because group activities take place in these places and money is spent in them (Homans, 1950). From an ecological perspective, a group may survive through the formation and maintenance of intergroup links. Specifically, with more such links constructed, a group has greater capacity to detect and respond to changes in the environment, and sees a greater probability to actually modify its environment (McPherson, 1983). In a bona fide group perspective, a group develops and maintains interdependence with its immediate contexts as manifested through reciprocal relationships between the group and its environment. These reciprocal relationships are represented in several ways, such as intergroup communication, coordinated actions among groups, negotiation of autonomy, and deliberation of group boundaries (Putnam and Stohl, 1996).

Applying a bona fide group perspective, Yep, et al.’s (2003) study of an AIDS support group indicates that no matter how closed a group may appear or consider itself to be, it is always embedded within by relevant contexts. In fact, having links with other groups through members’ multiple affiliations may be beneficial to the group because it helps bring diverse knowledge and experiences as well as information outlets for the focal group (Kramer, 2005). In online groups, fluctuating memberships and multiple group memberships are easily observed and can also benefit the group. For example, cross–postings are seen not only as an exchange of information across groups but also part of intragroup communication because they provide informational support to group members (Alexander, et al., 2003). It is possible that technology may afford different opportunities for a mixed–mode group to better interact with its environment. In the case of mixed–mode groups, their environment may consist of other mixed–mode groups as well as the groups and organizations they collaborate or compete with in the physical place where they have face–to–face meetings. For example, members may belong to multiple online and mixed–mode groups, through which they construct interconnections among the groups and negotiate fluid boundaries of these groups. Furthermore, a group may develop long–term ties with a local business for the purpose of getting group discounts. Considering the mutual influence between the environment and the inner workings of a group, this study explores the following question:

RQ2: How do mixed–mode groups interact with the environment, including other groups and organizations, and what is the role of technology in this interaction?

 

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Methods

The research site of this study was Meetup.com, a Web site designed to facilitate the creation of groups and coordination of off–line group meetings among participants based on shared interests and physical locations, that is, the formation and organizing of mixed–mode groups. Meetup.com fits the needs of this study not only because it is the largest network of mixed–mode groups in the world (over 14 million users and 130,000 local groups, which span 45,000 cities across the globe) but also because it contains a relatively complete history of group activities, whereas similar services such as Craigslist and Facebook do not. The data were mainly drawn from interviews with 34 Meetup group organizers.

Among the 34 participating organizers being interviewed, 14 group organizers were selected from 100 randomly sampled groups, which were provided by the research unit of Meetup.com. All of the organizers of these 100 groups were contacted through the contact functionality of Meetup.com, but only 14 organizers responded and participated in the interview. In addition to the random sample, interviews were conducted with another 20 group organizers who were selected through purposive sampling. Given that the objective of the study was to delve into both a systematically informed picture of the population of Meetup groups and also the reasons behind sustained groups, purposive sampling was implemented to locate 40 relatively active groups for interview and analysis. These groups were selected with the consideration of various group characteristics, including geographical regions (e.g., East Coast, Midwest, South, West Coast), group topics (e.g., social, adventure/activity, task–focused), organizing structures (e.g., single organizer, leadership team) and group status (e.g., frequency of meetings). In this purposive sample, among the 40 organizers being contacted, 20 organizers agreed to participate in the interview. All of the 34 organizers were asked to share their thoughts about other groups they also organized, which provided insight into the evolution of short–lived or less active groups. Among the total 34 organizers, 21 (61.8 percent) were men and 13 (38.2 percent) were women.

Interviews were semi–structured and conducted mainly over the phone, ranging from 14 to 114 minutes (M = 39.67, SD = 22.04, n = 30). Three other interviews were completed via e–mail upon the participants’ request, and one face–to–face interview was performed without the use of the recording device due to ambient interruptions. The initial interviews took place from July 2009 to January 2010, but 10 organizers were followed through July 2011 after observing conspicuous group development (e.g., group closure, spin–off groups). By August 2011, seven out of the 34 groups under study were closed (mean of age = 46.53 months, SD = 28.69; see Table 1 for more details). The interview data were supplemented with observations of the online activities of these groups on Meetup.com over two years (July 2009–August 2011). The author also attended in–person meetings of four groups, two of which (DCCulturalGroup, MIADGroup) were included in the sampled groups. These different sources of data together allowed for a fuller picture of the evolution of groups and group interaction taking place across online and off–line modes.

 

Details about participating organizers and their groups on Meetup.com

 

Grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1990) was used to analyze various data sources. Specifically, data collection and analysis took an iterative form to identify the themes and categories relevant to answer the research questions. After the first 10 interviews, a preliminary analysis was initiated on the interview transcripts and field notes, focusing on identifying themes associated with useful and non–useful strategies of organizing groups and groups’ interaction with the environment. These emerging themes helped guide the process of coding the transcripts and organizing the field notes. The rest of the interviews continued until theoretical saturation was reached, when the established categories were able to account for the newly collected data. All of the 30 audio–recorded interviews were transcribed. The 34 transcripts, including the four interviews that were not audio–recorded, were entered in ATLAS ti. Two research questions were answered through the query tool provided by the ATLAS ti computer program, which searched the entire corpus for the sentences and paragraphs of quotes that had been coded with the established categories [1].

 

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Findings

The evolutionary process of Meetup groups

RQ1 asked how the V–S–R processes were reflected in the formation and continuity of mixed–mode groups. Interviews revealed that most groups adopted combined methods of traditional word–of–mouth and unique online functions for recruitment, including the Web site of Meetup.com itself and online searching affordances. An organizer of a social group (WISocialGroup) mentioned his experience: “Basically, people who had heard about Meetup.com through other ways joined Meetup and then found my group when browsing the list of nearby groups. So the group has grown rapidly with very little effort on my part.” An organizer of a hiking group (NVHikingGroup) described his advertising efforts practiced off–line, which resulted in a series of relationship switches from off–line to online and then from online to off–line.

Mainly it was business cards, actually. We printed out cards, and we’d meet people on the trail and just start talking to them and hand them a business card. And definitely, most of our members — or we have — the ones that we actually recruited were definitely word of mouth. You know, we just told them about the hiking group. A lot of them said, “Wow, that sounds cool. I’d like to come out.”

From a bona fide group perspective, groups do not exist in a vacuum because members bring with them the experience and history of their other affiliations, which may have positive or negative effects on the focal group (Keyton and Stallworth, 2003). Understandably, traditional ways of advertising through member social networks were observed in these Meetup groups. Organizers tended to pass along the message about their newly created Meetup groups among their professional and social networks. Another effective way of promoting groups was to spread the message in the places that may be relevant to group events. An organizer of a gaming group in Canada (CAGameGroup) mentioned that he promoted the group mostly through role playing game (RPG) community contacts and through convention goers. Similarly, another organizer of a small breed dogs group (WIDogGroup) cooperated with a local doggy daycare to have a place to hold group meetings, which in a way helped both the business and the group to spread the word.

Unlike purely online groups, mixed–mode groups are more likely to be influenced by physical contexts. After a group is formed, the necessity of handling logistics and connections within and across groups becomes critical to maintaining group continuity. The choice of physical location had a discernible impact on various facets of group operation. For example, organizers reported difficulties in finding a meeting place that could accommodate a growing number of members. Meanwhile, the nature and type of group activity often entailed specific requirements for locations. An organizer of a meditation group (NMChannelingGroup) mentioned her experience of changing meeting places due to her group activity. Similarly, another organizer of a sports watching group (COSportsGroup) emphasized her search for local bars or restaurants that could provide multimedia surroundings for group meetings intended for watching sports games.

To summarize, in the initial phase of group evolution, V–S–R mechanisms were mainly concerned with the aspects of advertising and recruitment (see Figure 1). Different strategies in this phase were usually selected and retained based on the criteria of whether they were consistent with the needs of the members/organizers or with the goals of the group. For example, a multimodal strategy of recruitment was used because organizers were able to recruit members on a wider scale. The adoption of group policy also differed across groups. In some groups that emphasized a safe environment, photo posting as a requirement for membership was clearly mentioned in the group descriptions on the group Web page and this policy was maintained at later stages. In other groups, however, this type of policy was produced later in response to situational demands that arose, which will be described in the following section. In the meantime, groups also had other strategies unselected. For instance, they experimented with different locations for meetings without finalizing any decisions in this early phase.

 

The iterative and simultaneous processes of V-S-R in the evolution of Meetup
 
Figure 1: The iterative and simultaneous processes of V–S–R in the evolution of Meetup.

 

Continuity of groups. As groups developed further, organizing structure and core membership gradually took shape. Groups were able to figure out a sustainable organizing structure to maintain the operation of the group despite personnel shifts, namely, absence and replacement of members during a group’s lifetime (Lammers and Krikorian, 1997). There were several cases in which organizers sent out group emails or used the online discussion board to poll members about the future of the group (e.g., whether to switch the group to other Web sites) or express intention to step down and ask for people who were interested in taking over the position. Usually only active members would respond and get involved in these discussions. An organizer of a culture group (DCCulturalGroup) mentioned that after he took over as the new leader, he inherited the logistic responsibilities, such as the meeting location and the original organizing structure. This organizer of a climbing group (MAClimbGroup) said:

I know that Jeff [2] was not the first who started it (the group). The Meetup group was about to die and Jeff then took over because he felt it was a great idea. I actually still don’t know who really started it. It’s kind of being handed over from one to the other one.

Some organizers also implemented group policies for dealing with occurrences such as business solicitations, inappropriate harassing behavior, or less than expected attendances due to inaccurate RSVPs by members.

Membership in voluntary groups (Kramer, 2011), especially online groups (Alexander, et al., 2003), is known to be fluid and ambiguous due to the varied patterns of participating in group activities. As part of this study, I signed up for several Meetup groups without attending group events, but I received group e–mail messages on a regular basis informing me of group activities regardless of my attending status. In the case of Meetup groups, the attendance at any one meeting was far lower than the membership size as listed on the group Web page. But organizers revealed that as groups became stable, a core group of loyal members would emerge. And for each meeting, there were often new faces or visitors mixed with regular attendees. In some groups with diverse activities (e.g., social), members had the tendency to only participate in specific events that interested them.

Indeed, as Lammers and Krikorian (1997) and Ellingson (2003) pointed out, members’ interaction in the contexts other than formal meetings also represents the characteristic of fluid group boundaries and embedded contexts of the group. Interestingly, the generation of spin–off groups from the original groups was mentioned by nine organizers (out of 34). These spin–off groups were mainly developed out of the need for members to have a separate group devoted to their interests. Members in a women’s social group (ORWSocialGroup) organized among themselves a separate dancing Meetup group. Similarly, an organizer of a small breed dogs group (WIDogGroup) created another Meetup group with a special focus on Westie dog keepers. The motivation may also be linked to the specific geographical location that delimits the spin–off group. An organizer of one walking group (MIWalkGroup) started another walking group in a town one hour’s drive away from the area where her original group was located because she bought a house in the new area. She kept both of the groups, but relied more on her assistant organizers’ help to keep the original group going.

According to the participating organizers’ comments, the impact of the formal spin–off groups on the original group was generally perceived in a positive light, given that these sub–group activities enabled interaction among members with closer common interests. The downside, however, was also observed: smaller groups of people tended to develop their own personal relationships and thus no longer participated in the bigger group after a while. This type of sub–group activity would then lead to the departure of group members.

In sum, in the phase of continuity, emerging needs of the members and organizers as well as the goals of the group (e.g., stability) provided the selection criteria for organizers to decide what to do (see Figure 1). For example, different types of sub–group activities were tried and chosen in response to the demands from members. Group policies were considered and implemented in response to occurrences of member behaviors that may have affected the group negatively. The goal of maintaining group stability also served as another criterion for selection actions to take. For example, organizing structure was found to be retained through leadership change.

Meetup groups’ interaction with the environment

RQ2 asked about how mixed–mode groups interact with the environment. A more subtle way of interacting with the environment was to share information about how to organize a group. Several organizers mentioned that they solicited help from their personal networks, such as workplace colleagues or friends, in terms of getting ideas for event planning. Other types of group interaction were manifested through cross–postings and joint events with other Meetup groups and interactions with the local community. Yet the nature of external interaction varied depending on the group topic. In general, many groups tended to post information about other relevant events or groups on their group Web page. Groups focusing on social and recreation topics, however, were more likely to organize joint events or cross–post events with other Meetup groups because of multiple memberships of the organizers or assistant organizers in other Meetup groups. An organizer of a social group (OHNITGroup) mentioned how her group was connected to other similar Meetup groups:

... certain groups that I have a connection with. Like I would know them from the other — being in those groups. Maybe they’d come up with an idea, and I first would say to them, “Hey, is it okay if I copy your idea, you know, do a joint meetup?” And I’d ask permission at first. And then now it’s to the point where, with certain groups, they’re just like, “Hey, whatever you want to do, just post it or you know, just copy it. So I guess most of the groups that work together well, but again I’ve known them with you know, going along with the different events.

Generally, joint events provided members with an opportunity to know people from different groups and learn about other groups that they might not otherwise be aware of. At the group level, joint events could help recruit new members. Not surprisingly, as organizers mentioned, inflow communication from other organizations or Meetup groups also occurred when a group reached a certain group size or exhibited some levels of activeness. This illustrated the usefulness of having a publicly accessible and transparent technological platform because on the group Web page, the history of past events, group size, membership, and other group information were available, which provided important cues for others outside of the group to assess the “worthiness” of a group.

Interdependence with the locale. Common to those Meetup groups under study were the contributions they have made to local establishments and the community. An organizer of a vegetarian group (NYVGGroup) mentioned that he held group meetings at certain restaurants to support their businesses, while another organizer of a women’s social group (ORWSocialGroup) tended to arrange events at restaurants that are owned or run by women. This organizer of a hiking group (NVHikingGroup) explained his group’s involvement in reciprocating favors:

... with all these people that we have, I want to use them to do good things and to help the community. And you know, we’ve gotten so much out of [the city] [3] that it’s nice to give something back, ... we have adopted very popular trails in all three of those places. So we do maintenance on the trail. We clean trash off the trail and so on.

Furthermore, in some groups, they had incorporated interaction with local community as part of group activities. An organizer of a beekeeping group (NJ/NYGreenGroup) mentioned her group helped the community in a way that also helped the local authority to deliver the service to people in need of it:

... We are adding to the ability of — for example, here ... where the Parks Departments would’ve liked to do something, but they can’t, for two reasons: one, because it’s illegal and, two, because they don’t have the money. But they’re very happy that we can bring the service so that they can provide the service, because we are volunteers. So it is like we augment the capacity of the city to deliver certain services.

An organizer of a new technology group (COTechGroup) described how his group activity served as a venue to connect community and a college:

I was talking with people about what has happened, and I kind of talked with one of the professors up at the local college, which is the University of ABC. [4] And it became clear that they did not have a clear vehicle to get what their mission was into the community, and the community didn’t have a clear way of going from the community into the school. So it’s kind of, again, in this two–way street as a way for this school to come out and for the community to go in. And the meetings have become kind of this vehicle for all this to occur.

Overall, Meetup groups had various ways of interacting with their environments, which consisted of individuals, groups, and organizations outside of the group. These included information seeking through personal networks, cross–postings and joint events with other groups, and cooperation with local businesses and organizations. Exemplifying a reciprocal flow of influence, these groups influenced the environments as much as they were shaped by the environment (Putnam and Stohl, 1996).

 

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Discussion

The growing use of the Internet to organize face–to–face meetings has generated a new form of voluntary association: mixed–mode groups, which are characterized by a multimodal form of building connections and relationships through online interaction and face–to–face meetings. At first glance, the loosely structured membership of Meetup groups may render definitions of groups questionable. Nonetheless, the bona fide group perspective allows for the consideration of different types of groups in natural settings such as social, recreation, and cultural groups, and thus provides a useful lens to examine Meetup groups as groups.

Characteristics of bona fide mixed–mode groups

As the bona fide group perspective suggests, fluid group boundaries and membership are salient in the operation of the group (Putman and Stohl, 1990). This study expands existing research on bona fide online groups that mainly interact online (Alexander, et al., 2003; Kirkorian and Kiyomiya, 2003) by examining groups that are established online but meet physically. Unlike online groups that are the common targets in the Internet and computer–mediated communication (CMC) research, mixed–mode groups represent types of associations that are susceptible to the influences from a wider scope of environments, including online and physical environments. Meetup group organizers were observed to use their personal networks outside of the group for recruitment and information seeking as well as coordination of cross–postings and joint events. Some Meetup groups also cooperated with local establishments or helped the local community. The consequence of fluid membership can nevertheless take another direction as tensions were observed as a result of evolving personal relationships among a subset of members. Yet in spite of fluctuating group memberships, groups exhibited the ability to implement sustainable organizing structures, which may include organizer–led or distributed leadership styles. These findings highlight the autonomous nature of bona fide mixed–mode groups.

Technology was also seen to have played a critical role in the autonomous self–organizing process; through the group’s Web page on Meetup.com organizers and members were able to see the documented group activities and communal information, as well as have direct connections with each other (Fulk, et al., 1996). In other words, technological capabilities of the Meetup Web page were adequately incorporated into different aspects of group organizing, which helped groups to engage in collective action in an easier way, despite the fact that not every member was necessarily involved in the decision–making. Similarly, these technological capabilities were also found to facilitate the opportunity for intergroup cooperation in the form of sponsorships or joint events with other groups because the group Web page provided external actors a useful information repository about the state of the group. Practically speaking, these together suggest that incorporating a multifaceted technological platform in different aspects of organization is important in managing a sustainable bona fide group.

V–S–R in phases of mixed–mode group evolution

In addition to the bona fide group perspective, the ecological and evolutionary perspective helps enrich the understanding of the evolutionary process of Meetup groups. This study extends the existing ecological and evolutionary research concentrated in formal task–oriented organizations to the domain of technology–mediated voluntary groups. Specifically, the results showed the different ways these Meetup groups built and strengthened their fitness through word–of–mouth and online searching recruitment, either focused or segmented activities, cooperation with other groups and organizations, and interaction with local establishments and the community. Unlike the commonly known linear paths associated with evolution, this study provided insights into the iterative and simultaneous evolutionary processes of mixed–mode groups. As illustrated in Figure 1, certain strategies that groups experimented with at the formatting stage might remain unselected (the top horizontal arrow) or become selected and retained (the downward arrow) as groups evolved. Some strategies that were selected and retained from the early phase might remain selected and retained (the bottom horizontal arrow) while others became modified or abandoned (the upward arrow) as groups proceeded to the phase of continuity. For example, while still relying on the search function of Meetup.com for getting new members, organizers mentioned they stopped using promotion materials later on when they held the event at public places because they thought it was no longer needed. This indicates that in these groups, adaptive processes of V–S–R can be iterative as groups evolve (Freeman, 1981). In the interim, groups also encountered other sources of variation and engaged in different rounds of V–S–R processes as they evolved. Hence, the V–S–R processes can occur simultaneously (Aldrich, 1999).

This model can be used as a framework to understand the role of technology in influencing V–S–R mechanisms as enacted by technology–mediated organizations in general and mixed–mode groups in particular. It is possible that certain technological features such as the online search function and the group Web page listing group details may serve as sources of variation for recruitment at the formation stage. Later on, these features can also become sources of variation for retaining members and obtaining external support. In other words, the usefulness of technological affordances may change over time as the goals and needs of the group change. Essentially, this reflects the socially constructed nature of technological affordances (Hsieh, 2012). It also indicates that having a flexible set of strategies to make use of technology in different phases of group development may be helpful for group organizing.

 

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Conclusion

There are several limitations in this study. First, drawing on interviews with group organizers using Meetup.com, findings may be biased by the participating organizers, who were more likely to be successful organizers. But extra effort has been made to encourage organizers to share their thoughts about less active groups they also organized. Second, this study focused on collecting data at the group level from group organizers. Yet it was observed that, on behalf of the group, the group organizers were capable of answering the questions related to group development and the strategies used, and they also had the best knowledge of group interaction with external actors. In other words, organizers’ responses were deemed sufficient to inform the aspects investigated in this study. Third, the evolution of groups on Meetup.com may not adequately represent the general phenomenon of mixed–mode groups. Future research can expand to different formats of mixed–mode groups for comparison purposes.

Despite these shortcomings, this exploratory study integrates the bona fide group perspective and the ecological and evolutionary perspective to examine the evolutionary process of mixed–mode groups. Findings of this study demonstrated the iterative and simultaneous processes of V–S–R in different phases of group evolution; they also provided insights into different forms of group interdependence with their environments. The role of technology was analyzed as part of the V–S–R processes of mixed–mode groups as well as the fluid organizing structure implemented by groups. In sum, this study illuminates the expanded focus on multimodal contexts, which provides a richer and fuller picture of different forms of associations made possible through the Internet and other types of ICTs in contemporary society. End of article

 

About the author

Chih–Hui Lai (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Akron. Her research interests focus on the intersection of technology use, organizational communication, and voluntary groups.
E–mail: chihhui [at] uakron [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank James Katz, Marya Doerfel, Jennifer Gibbs, Barry Wellman, and anonymous reviewers for their most helpful comments and invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

 

Notes

1. The interview protocol and coding categories are available upon request.

2. Pseudonym was used for confidentiality.

3. Generic name was used for confidentiality.

4. Ibid.

 

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Editorial history

Received 27 April 2013; revised 6 September 2013; accepted 11 September 2013.


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“Understanding the evolution of bona fide mixed–mode groups: An example of Meetup groups” by Chih–Hui Lai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Understanding the evolution of bona fide mixed–mode groups: An example of Meetup groups
by Chih–Hui Lai.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 1 - 6 January 2014
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4681/3810
doi: 10.5210/fm.v19i1.4681.





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